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HIS LIFE, HER LEGEND
From: The Star - 28 July 2000
By JANET SMITH

Hunting for something unusual? A taste of the exotic? Like a little bit of decadence and trash? Then you can do no better than watch Metamorphosis, The Remarkable Journey of Granny Lee.

Billed as the tale of a Coloured man, who died and was buried as a white woman, this is a whole lot more than that. It's a sublimely tacky, frivolously profound portrait of a woman who was both of these things, too.

Made by Underdog, one of South Africa's most inventive and intelligent production houses, Metamorphosis is an outrageous piece of work - thanks to its subject: Johannesburg's most famous clubgoer and drag queen and an idol of the underground. It should have arrived wound in a feather boa.

Granny Lee is dead, Long live Granny Lee. That might as well be the tagline for the documentary, which traces the life of a real character against the very important backdrop of apartheid. Granny Lee was, after all, born Coloured. Her choices, as a result, were extremely limited and teaching was one of the few options open to a gifted Coloured man. But that was not enough and once Leonard Christian Du Plooy had discovered the wild pleasures of Durban, he would never look back again. His childhood in Kimberley was put behind him, and when he finally moved to Johannesburg and unveiled the decadence of club life in the guise of a white woman, his persona was complete.

The documentary uses several key devices to tell the story, which is in itself, heavily layered with sociopolitical meaning. Of the devices, the dramatizations are the weakest. It's not clear why the producers decided to opt for this method of depicting Granny Lee when the interviews with friends, associates and family are almost sufficient to go some way to revealing the torment, the love, the passion, the lust, the ingrate, the generous soul.

The footage of places Granny inhabited and defined as her own as well as the photographs and footage of Granny in here septuagenarian heyday are, however, the strongest images and Underdog, typically, has a mesmerizing way of using these on screen. Somehow, when one melds these together, a much clearer picture emerges of a woman whose heart was not always in the right place but whose extreme turns at transformation were ahead of her time.

Essentially, Metamorphosis is about gender and race and, as Underdog says, about the notion of "created identity". South Africa's most famous drag queen is Evita Bezuidenhout, although very few of us regard Evita in that light. Like Dame Edna, she is a celebrity without the trappings of role-playing to inhibit her position in society.

That was not the case with Granny Lee - mostly because she existed in relative shadow. Only the people who came out at night, without prejudice about race or sexual preference, really knew she was there. It was time that her legend was exposed to a wider audience, which is why Metamorphosis is important as another piece in the puzzle of our past.

Ruth Barter plays Granny Lee

© Underdog Entertainment 2000